Direct action taken by criminal barristers in protest at legal aid reforms is beginning to bite hard, sparking concern among solicitors that the government will land defendants with unsuitable counsel as a ‘panic measure’.
Criminal barristers are refusing to take on new defence work in protest at reforms to the advocates graduated fee scheme (AGFS). The Gazette understands that by Friday at least 50 chambers had joined the action. Renowned sets Doughty Street, Matrix and 25 Bedford Row are among those to have declared their support.
Last week a defendant in a murder trial left without representation made national news. Kema Salum, 38, appeared for his first court hearing at the Central Criminal Court over the death of his wife.
Salum’s solicitor, Seona White, of criminal defence firm BSB Solicitors, said she contacted more than 20 chambers to find a barrister, but none was prepared to take on the case.
Speaking to the Gazette, Jonathan Black, partner at criminal defence firm BSB solicitors, said: ‘Had our client been charged a few hours earlier we would not be in this position.’
He added: ‘We are concerned that rather than resolving this by discussion with the representatives of the professions, that the Ministry of Justice will impose upon our client unsuitable counsel as a panic measure.’
A spokesperson for the MoJ said any action to disrupt the courts was ‘unacceptable’ but that it would take ‘all necessary steps’ to ensure legal representation is available for defendants.
The action was announced by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) following a poll of its 4,000 members. Of 2,317 respondents, 2,081 voted in favour.
In a statement on the CBA website this morning chair Angela Rafferty implied there was no timeframe for ending the action.
‘We must have strength and work together to get through the next months and to hold firm,’ she wrote, adding: ‘we need the lord chancellor and his ministers to put justice in her rightful place at the centre of this democracy. Next year will see the country leave the European Union. The importance of the rule of law and civil society could not be higher at this unprecedented time.’
On Friday afternoon the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) issued a statement which broadly echoed guidance published by The Law Society earlier in the day. The CLSA said it ‘understands’ why colleagues at the bar have taken the ‘difficult decision’ to take action and said it supports the fight for a properly funded justice system that the public deserve.
'Members should be aware of their obligations to record steps taken to locate advocates and should they be unable to locate counsel, they should notify the court promptly and may have to consider appropriate legal arguments if their clients cannot have a fair trial.’
The CLSA said it is liaising with the CBA and will provide as much information as it can on any barristers who are not accepting work. It said many solicitor advocate members are also declining work. 'That should be a decision taken by individual members and their firms,’ the CLSA said.
It added: ‘At this time unity between the professions is essential now and in the future to ensure not only the survival of our once fair, just and much envied criminal justice system but also the survival of the lawyers who are so important to the running of the system.’
Greg Powell, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said that the Ministry of Justice is now 'reaping the consequences of decades of cuts’.
‘We believe a new and comprehensive settlement is needed for the whole of the legal aid system which restores value, enhances recruitment and protects quality,’ he added.
The MoJ added: ‘We greatly value the work of criminal advocates and will continue to engage with the bar over their concerns regarding the AGFS scheme.’